Forgotten Authors: The Addiction That Can’t Be Cured
Readers sometimes ask, ‘Do your characters live with you 24 hours a day?’ to which I (and I suspect most regularly published authors) answer, ‘No, they live in my computer.’ When I turn my mind to stories I do so seated at a desk, although ideas sometimes run in the background if I’m particularly stuck and trying to think of a way out. Being a crime writer is a bit like being an escapologist.
The ‘Forgotten Authors’ book is different somehow. It grew out of me reading them for pleasure in the first place, a habit that has continued after the hardback has appeared. This week I’m reading Cyril Hare, who beats Christie for style and atmosphere. He’s a new discovery, working in the 1930s, but other authors like JB Priestley, Margaret Millar and Norman Collins, all of whose books I knew well, have recently had more of their backlists published. Having read (and written about) Frank Baker’s ‘The Birds’, I now find myself reading his ‘Stories of the Strange & Sinister’.
But I’m also currently reading Priestley’s ‘Benighted’, which was the basis for James Whale’s strange film ‘The Old Dark House’, plus Margaret Millar’s early detective novels and Norman Collins’ ‘The Three Friends’, an utter delight. Latest finds include Anne Rivers Siddons’ ‘The House Next Door’, Bari Wood’s ‘The Tribe’, Ken Greenhall’s ‘Hell Hound’ and ‘Elizabeth’, Jack Finney’s ‘Five Against the House’ and E Arnot Robinson’s ‘Four Frightened People’.
One of the things you have to accept is the thing most Amazon reviewers complain about; books can often have old-fashioned attitudes. But in many cases this has no real effect on the stories themselves, but you need a little imagination negotiate this and not be too quick to take offence. As books get republished their covers are re-imagined for different times, as with ‘The House Next Door’, and also inform the mindset of the reader.
I started reading backwards, exploring experimental works from Ballard, Brophy and BS Johnson when I should have been starting with the classics. I thought I had to love all canonical literature because of its status. I preferred ‘War and Peace’ to ‘Pride and Prejudice’, loved Mervyn Peake and Dickens, but saw no demarcation line between comics and classics. I abandoned too many canonical works, trying them at different times of my life (step forward ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’ – both of which I’ve finally given up on). And I return to the margins where the forgotten authors live.
Part of the problem is a sense of time wasted and time running out. Even if I was twenty now, I still own too many books to read in one lifetime, but last weekend I attended a book fair and bought a ridiculous number of authors I’d vaguely heard of but never read. Christianna Brand’s ‘Nanny Matilda’ stories, anyone? Modern novels suffer by comparison, too. So many are prosaically written, over-explanatory plods. Find me a book as succinct as say, Horace McCoy’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ and I’ll show you why no publisher would touch it now.
The moral; when present-day books disappoint, delve into past glories.